Monday, May 12, 2014

Editing is like pruning rose bushes


My husband and son once borrowed a Lord of the Rings unedited DVD from the library. They wanted to watch all the parts which were later deleted. They'd expected to find a number of extra scenes that hadn't made it to the movie. But there were, in fact, very few extra scenes. Instead, the scenes which were already in the movie had bits trimmed off them. They agreed that the bits that had been cut out were as excellent as the rest of the movie. But they didn't necessarily carry the plot forward. So while the scenery, characterisation and effects in them were fantastic, they didn't "add" anything to the story but just reinforced what was already there.

I think that in this regard, film editing seems very much like book editing. I ought to know. It has been my experience over nine novels. I'm always amazed by how many snips and trims can be made without sacrificing any story line. Sometimes it's just a sentence here and there, a few "How are yous?" or "thank you very muches." Other times, I've managed to delete entire paragraphs, because I've studied them and thought, "Readers will be able to work this out in their own heads without being spoon-fed," or "This is just repeating what I said in the last page, with different words." Sometimes I've managed to shorten a book by 50 or 60 pages just by getting rid of these unnecessary little extras. I've grown to quite enjoy this process.

Early in my writing days, I used to hate it because I thought, "That's goodbye to hours of hard work." And I've had other people tell me that this is the way they feel too. But I've come to see for myself that, paradoxically, taking parts away really does add to the story's quality. It tightens the whole thing and keeps it running more smoothly. A bit like pruning rose bushes or grape vines, I think. All that foliage appears green and healthy, but it gives flowers and fruit so much more opportunity to flourish when it goes.

I think everyone needs to do this type of editing, whether you're Shakespeare or a school student. The human brains seems to be constructed so we're naturally a bit too wordy and verbose in the first drafts. That's a good thing because it means that everything we want to get across is in there, and we just need to trim away the extra bits to make it shine.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of anybody who first begins to tackle editing is that while they might have expected the process to be mostly changing and adding things, this pruning and deleting actually takes up so much of the process.

Paula Vince is the author of nine novels, mostly contemporary dramas with elements of romance, mystery and suspense. She lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills of South Australia, which she likes to use for the setting of most of her stories. You can visit her here.


13 comments:

  1. Thanks for that Paula. That's a great tip. I find that even short pieces, like poems or devotions, can benefit from that pruning. Last year I read a 550-page (or so) book by one of my favourite authors and I couldn't help thinking that it would have been better if she'd deleted at least 50 pages. As you say, it can be hard to get rid of those bits, especially if a scene we really like has to go. But I keep previous versions and some of those bits might be able to recycled into another story or poem at a later date. Thanks for your insights and happy pruning!

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    1. Hi Nola,
      Yes, I agree with you about short pieces too, and the point about recycling. In fact, I'm sure sometimes you find the bits you deleted work even better for another piece, at a later date. Writing is good and strange like that.

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  2. I just love editing - not! Actually, I don't love the process, but I do really appreciate the finished result. Snip snip!

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    1. Hi Meredith,
      Yes, I know what you're saying :) When we first get it back, covered with comments and markings, the heart does take an initial plunge. But then we start snipping.

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  3. As for pruning roses, oh I feel so cruel, yet each spring I'm amazed at the effects. I don't mean to sound rude, but what you've said applies to conversations and even preaching, Paula. How often I've thought "please get to the point" when people fill in too much background stuff you don't need to know.

    I really enjoy editing now, though at first, like you, I thought of all the work that went into certain scenes. Now I'd rather be the one who decides what's not really necessary and cut, cut, cut. Remember when movies showed you characters travelling to their destination? Now it's zoom...and they're there. So, same thing.

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    1. Hi Rita,
      That's quite true :) Conversations can be the worst, as we repeat ourselves, go round in circles and veer off the topic. I like it that conversations in fiction novels come across natural, but we know they are really anything but, as most contain all of the above.

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  4. I love editing too. It helps me see if my book is any good and helps me make it better if required. I find it very satisfying.

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    1. Hi Lynne,
      Nothing like the satisfaction of having the finished product before us, all snipped and trim, that's for sure.

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  5. I agree with Lynne that editing is very satisfying. I find it the most enjoyable part of my writing process since I love refining my words over and over again! :) This year I am planning to de-clutter my house - I guess de-cluttering is a lot like editing. Thanks for your post Paula - when I hear the word 'edit' it make my eyes shine! :)

    9 Novels? Wow - that's a LOT of editing. Well done! A LOT of creativity too! Awesome Paula.

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  6. Hi Anusha,
    Yes, I think they are similar too. Now you've made me think that the amount of editing out from the 9 novels would be quite a stack of paper :)

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  7. What a great way to describe the editing process, Paula - pruning to allow the fruit and flowers to flourish. So true that it can be tempting to clutter up drafts with too many words. There's something quite breathtaking about an exquisitely placed word, whether that be in prose or poetry. Can't see them if they're buried under unruly undergrowth! (Now where's that machete... ;-) )

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  8. Hi Adele,
    Yep, you got it. We've got to let those words show forth like flowers. Let's keep clearing up the clutter.

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  9. Good post Paula. All work like gardens need that pruning.

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